By lex, on December 21st, 2009
There is a kind of religion in Hollywood, Roth Douthat opines and it’s on full display in James Cameron’s latest opus:
“Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world…
(Pantheism) has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them.
Douthat goes on to follow that train of thought to the end of the line:
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.
Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.
But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.
Increasing entropy is a fundamental characteristic of the physical universe, and increasingly a characteristic of the moral one. Rapaciousness and greed are everywhere on display, with some content to get all that may be gotten in this life against the chance that actions have objective meaning and choices are appropriately rewarded in a next. Vast, unsettled majorities have begun to think that they have been had, that the game is rigged, that the social compact was always a fraud, or has at any rate become one. A game of winners and losers, a restless struggle for advantage – a zero-sum scheme with a ticking clock. As much as anything else, this, I think, divides us because all of life’s choices and preferences devolve from our understanding of the nature of the universe.
We all yearn for freedom and chafe at restriction, at least until the bigger man with his own notion of freedom comes by with a baseball bat in his hand, sizing up our shoes. “Jungle law for me, but not for thee” has a liberating ring, but there are few who will willingly partner with us in that bargain. So we count on government to step in and fill the space once defined by self-discipline, at least in a polite society. But when we are unable to count on our neighbors to exercise self-restraint against our interests – the end result of any truly faithless society – we may in the end have freed our minds, but lost all other liberties for the sake of security.
Between our giving and our getting over the next few days we have a chance to celebrate an alternate take on reality. After that?